By JACK LYONS
The country’s pandemic hit the Coachella Valley pretty hard. We lost CoyoteStageWorks, one of our multi-award-winning leading professional theatre companies, who after more than ten years, was forced to turn off their “ghost light” forever. Other theatre companies have been hanging by their fingernails amid this pandemic monster. But, for how long can they wait? The world of entertainment in the 21st century is changing as you read this review.
CV REP’s founding artistic director Ron Celona is retiring and passing the reins of ‘producing director to, as yet, an unnamed theatre pro. Celona was the quintessential artistic director and savvy theatre person who understood the rules of engagement in the world of theatre. He leaves the Coachella valley richer in theatrical talent and theatre boldness in play selection during his years of offering quality theatre entertainment. He will be missed.
Life is not only complicated, but can be funny at times. There is always humor and empathy to ease the pain of life’s ups and downs. The trick is to find it. Desert Ensemble Theatre (DET) of Palm Springs found it in their delightful production of Salty, written by A. J. Clauss, which is innovatively staged by artistic director Jerome Elliott.
The poignant comedy was inspired by the true story of two male penguins at an Australian zoo, who made international headlines in 2019 when they fostered an egg. Playwright Clauss’ pseudo-fanciful reimagining takes place in a zoo in the middle of nowhere in the summer and autumn, years from now.
Bowie, a tall penguin, winningly played by John Corr, and his penguin co-parent Silver, who wants “to be a father that’s like a mother” is deftly played by Anthony Nannini. Both actors are a couple of scene stealers. All of the actors are double-cast as both humans and as penguins in fleshing out the compelling story that playwright Clauss imparts to the audience, bolstered by the vision director Elliott brings in breathing resonating life into the actors’ performances.
If you’re a fan of Disney animated movies you will enjoy the anthropomorphic characters in Salty. They are empathetic and possess the simple wisdom and instincts that both animals and humans share. But a note of caution:
Playwright Clauss has imbued all the characters in this 21st century production with a boatload of “effing expletives” that may be off-putting to some. So one might consider leaving grandma and the kiddies at home for this one.
The talented six-member ensemble assembled by director Elliott are always in their moments. It’s a joy to watch them. They include: Phylicia Mason as Snicker/Steph; Miguel Arballo as Edward/Mason; Tessa Gregory-Walker as Fauna/Winnie; Heather Bates as Flora/Desiree; and the aforementioned actors Anthony Nannini as Silver/Tour Guide and John Corr as Bowie/Zach. Melanie Blue as the energetic neither human nor penguin, delivers a stunning interlocutory-like comedy performance as the Fox; that completes this thought-provoking production produced by DET president Shawn Abramowitz and play director Elliott.
The cast holds up a theatrical mirror whether they are portraying humans or penguins, as a way for the audience to see themselves as characters on the stage that is, if the shoes fit. After all, we rarely see ourselves as others see us. Perhaps, it’s time to take inventory. Listen and learn. Comedy can be a great teacher. It’s sublime stuff. But no more spoiler alerts from me. One will just have to come to the theatre to see for one’s self.
In the technical team department led by director Elliott, Salty is set-designed by Thomas L. Valach with a lighting design by Jason Smith, assisted by technician Kevin O’Shaugnessy. Costume designer Andrew Maclaine creates costumes for both people and penguins, while sound designer Gus Sanchez, provides the sound. August Pearson is the assistant director to director Elliott. Salty is performed without an intermission that runs about 90 minutes. Sierra Barrick stage manages this production
A shout out and congratulations is definitely called for upon learning that DET has been awarded a Coachella Valley Spotlight award in a partnership with Gulf California Broadcast Company and the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation of a generous grant of $25,000, which will be used for improvements to the DET facilities at the Palm Springs Cultural Center for future productions. No doubt, founding member and playwright Tony Padilla is beaming at the news as well. Well done, DET!
Salty performs on Friday, February 25 at 7:00 p.m., on Saturday, February 26 at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m., and closes on Sunday, February 27, following the 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinee. For ticket information and reservations go to https://salty.bpt.me or call the box office at 760-565-2476.